Laelaps

Book Review: Man the Hunted

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The skull of the Taung child (Australopithecus africanus); the fragmentary remains of Orrorin; the scattered bones of Homo erectus from Dragon Bone Hill; a skullcap of a young Paranthropus from Swartkrans, South Africa. What do all these hominin fossils have in common? They all bear the tell-tale marks of predators, from birds of prey to gigantic hyenas, and run distinctly against the notion that humans have always dominated the landscape. There have always been toothy shadows that stalked the night during our history, and the significance of this fact is the focus of Donna Hart and Robert Sussman’s Man the Hunted, which has just come out in an expanded edition.

For much of the 20th century hunting and meat-eating were considered central to human evolution. Bound together as the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis, the concept attributed almost everything seen as unique about our species to the quest for flesh dripping with fat. Hunting would require that our ancestors work together and fashion stone tools, and the meat acquired would allow for rapid brain expansion. Yet these benefits came with a price, violence and war, and so we are victims of our ancestors choices.

Hart and Sussman explicitly disagree. Our ancestors and ancient relatives have been prey longer than hunters, and while the authors to cover predation on primates their book is truly a 286-page response to the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis. Not only is the traditional idea wrong, the state, but it is a subjective and sexist framework that cannot be considered good science.

To a large extent Hart and Sussman are correct, but the weakness of Man the Hunted is that Hart and Sussman do not follow their own advice. They have their own ideological axe to grind and support a more peaceful evolutionary history for hominins. This can be seen in Hart and Sussman’s discussion of chimpanzees.

Since the 1970’s a number of research stations in Africa have documented violence within and between chimpanzee societies, from infanticide to the slaughter of males from neighboring communities. Since chimpanzees are our closest living relatives these events have sometimes been interpreted as a view to our own violent past (as in the popular book Demonic Males), but Hart and Sussman try to downplay instances where chimpanzees have killed other chimpanzees. The large-scale elimination of neighboring males and other violent events are “aberrant” occurrences caused by human activity (i.e. provisioning, encroachment, forest destruction, &c.), they say, and therefore chimpanzee communities would normally be more peaceful. They do not make a strong case, however, and it appears that their interpretation of chimpanzee behavior is being dictated by their adherence to an alternate view of peaceful primates.

This bias can also be seen in the way the authors paint “Man the Hunter” hypotheses with a broad brush. Hart and Sussman lump Raymond Dart’s interpretation of australopithecines as murderous cannibals with more “moderate” ideas about the act of hunting being important to our evolution. While Dart’s ideas did gain some popularity, mainly thanks to author Robert Ardrey and the introductory sequence in the film adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, many anthropologists considered Dart’s view as a gory caricature of our origins. There was opposition to Dart’s view (i.e. he could not get his famous “Predatory Transition From Ape to Man” published in a major journal, which is why it is so difficult to find today despite being so widely cited), but the authors of Man the Hunted find it more convenient to ignore this. There is much to criticize about “Man the Hunter”, absolutely, but unfortunately Hart and Sussman opted to create a tottering straw man that provides a much larger, and ridiculous, target that is easier to demolish.

[For any students of the history of anthropology that may be reading, the difference between Dart's ideas and more widely-accepted "Man the Hunter" hypotheses provide fertile ground for research. A comprehensive study of the relationship between these ideas is, to the best of my knowledge, still wanting.]

That Hart and Sussman are primarily devoted to skewering “Man the Hunter” is also supported by a glaring omission in their writing. The authors are adamant that humans did not systematically hunt until fire was being regularly used, both events beginning in the Middle Pleistocene about 400,000 years ago. (Though their is much controversy on this point; I am merely repeating the argument of the authors here.) What Hart and Sussman do not consider, however, are the numerous fossil bones bearing cut marks from far older deposits.

Whether hominins like Homo erectus (or even some australopithecines) were hunting, driving predators off kills, or scavenging unattended carcasses is still up for debate, but cut-marked bones about a million years old or older show that, one way or another, hominins were gaining access to flesh-bearing carcasses. Indeed, Homo erectus is often portrayed as the first hominin capable of obtaining relatively large prey and competing with carnivorans, yet this part of our evolution garners almost no discussion (pro or con) in Hart and Sussman’s book. Their focus is primarily on australopithecines and modern primates (including Homo sapiens) that fall prey to predators. The intervening time goes mostly undiscussed.

To be fair, though, Hart and Sussman briefly consider “Man the Scavenger” in Chapter 11. This is the portion of the book that allows the cover to boast that the new edition is expanded, but this brings up another criticism. As Hart and Sussman say in the introductory section Chapters 1-10, the entirety of the previous edition, were left untouched. Chapter 11, a hodgepodge of afterthoughts and responses, is the only new thing about the book. I doubt that the original version of Man the Hunted was so perfect as to require no revisions whatsoever, and I honestly am irritated by “updated” science texts that boast afterthoughts as an organic extension of the original work. Given that the original edition of Man the Hunted only came out in 2005 I would think the authors could have taken a little more time to update their text.

I feel that these conceptual problems mar what otherwise could have otherwise been an excellent book, but I do not wish to suggest that Man the Hunted is without value. Much of the book reviews creatures, living and extinct, that have preyed upon hominins and other primates. If human and non-human primates are seen as food as predators today there is no reason to expect it to have been any different in the past, especially given the wide diversity of extinct carnivorous mammals. Hart and Sussman’s discussion of birds of prey, in particular, is a good reminder that some raptors are regular primate-killers, a fact I knew nothing about until I took a course in primate socioecology.

Hart and Sussman also do a good job addressing whether predation is significant to primate ecology and evolution. For years it was assumed that predation on living primate species was low because primatologists rarely saw it, but those actually studying predators observed it much more often (especially in inspecting the scat of their study subjects). Contrary to conventional wisdom predation does influence primate evolution.

Of added value is a review of a few hominin fossils showing signs of predation. I am sure there are more that were not discussed in the book (like the “First Family“), but it is interesting that predators may have been responsible for some of the best-known hominin fossil finds (like those I mentioned in the first paragraph). The habits of some predators to deposit the bones of their human meals in caves or at sites of better sedimentation may have allowed for the preservation of the remains, even if the hopes of finding a complete skeleton plummet under such circumstances. Indeed, we may owe some of the most famous fossil hominin discoveries ever made to the activities of predators.

If you are looking for a general introduction to predation on primates Man the Hunted is a fair place to start. While Hart and Sussman could have been a little more critical in reporting some anecdotes the bulk of the book is a fair overview of how predation was, and remains, important to primate evolution. Overall, though, I was disappointed by the book. While I agree that the “Man the Hunter” image remains entrenched in the popular media Hart and Sussman seem so committed to tearing down the idea that they make the same errors they accuse others of falling prey to. This is a shame, but it is a danger that pervades anthropological science. If there is any science that is influenced by our cultural background, expectations, and desires it is anthropology, and we must take care to make sure that what we want to be true doesn’t obscure our vision.

Comments

  1. #1 Romeo Vitelli
    June 14, 2009

    “The authors are adamant that humans did not systematically hunt until fire was being regularly used, both events beginning in the Middle Pleistocene about 400,000 years ago.”

    In 2000, I was a volunteer on a dig in the Peninj region of Tanzania. We unearthed a homo erectus hunting camp, about 1.5 million years old. It seemed pretty systematic to me.

  2. #2 Laelaps
    June 14, 2009

    Romeo; Right. As I said, Homo erectus gets pretty short shrift and the authors never really define the different types of hunting they are talking about. I wanted to like this book, I wrote about the same topic for a seminar class term paper a few years ago, but it fell short of my expectations.

  3. #3 Colugo
    June 14, 2009

    Paleoanthroplogy and biological anthropology in general are saturated with politics. The nature and fate of the neadertals, origin of pair-bonding, sexual dimorphism, out of Africa vs multiregionalism, group selection, egalitarian vs hierarchies, evolution of diet, biological bases of aggression, even lemur behavior, have all been battlegrounds of debate over current public policy and politicized distortion of opposing scientific views. Race, gender, animal rights, economics, vegetarianism, and peace studies all get dragged into the mix.

    These arguments are premised, explicitly or implicitly, on the notion that there is a natural (that is, “correct”) way for us to order our affairs. (I know, I know, the naturalistic fallacy.) But maybe there isn’t. Perhaps our evolutionary trajectory is so strange, so novel, providing unprecedented behavioral plasticity and neurotic self-reflection, that there is no natural or right way for us to live. Hence any political/economic/cultural formulation is fated to be accompanied by profound psychological unease and social conflict.

  4. #4 llewelly
    June 16, 2009

    Hart and Sussman lump Raymond Dart’s interpretation of australopithecines as murderous cannibals with more “moderate” ideas about the act of hunting being important to our evolution. While Dart’s ideas did gain some popularity, mainly thanks to author Robert Ardrey and the introductory sequence in the film adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, many anthropologists considered Dart’s view as a gory caricature of our origins.

    There’s no hint of cannibalism in the opening of 2001. (A tribe war, yes, but no cannibalism.)

  5. #5 Laelaps
    June 16, 2009

    Llewelly; True enough, but it still echoes the general gist of Dart’s argument (the first tools were bones, horns, and teeth of dead animals which we used to kill other early humans and this development was the precursor to later technology).

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